Mar
2013

A Disabled God?

In the Christian West, tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Usually this day is given to joyful children’s processions, to waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” In churches that do not observe Good Friday as a rule, or for persons whose work prevents them from attending Good Friday observances, the result may be that we go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter, with scant attention given to the cross in between.  Or, Easter Sunday may become the day when we sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and talk about Jesus suffering and death, with little attention paid to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

However, the lectionary readings for the day remind us that tomorrow is not only Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40), but also Passion Sunday (Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14—23:56).  We are reminded that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem took him in the end to Calvary, where he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).  Christians have always understood that the cross of Jesus is the place where our own death dies—the place where our separation from God and from one another is undone, and we are delivered from sin, death, hell, and the grave.  But from the very beginning, we have struggled to understand why, or how, this happens.

The Bible presents many ways of thinking about the cross. For example, in the gospel of Luke, from which this year’s lectionary readings are taken, Jesus is the sovereign Lord who remains in control, even on the cross. While in Mark and Matthew, Jesus dies with a loud, inarticulate cry (Mk 15:37//Matt 27:50), in Luke, his last words are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)—a prayer of confidence, drawn from Psalm 31:5. No one kills Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead Jesus, in control to the end, voluntarily surrenders his spirit to God. By his death and resurrection, Jesus wins the final victory over the Enemy, Satan, and liberates the world from bondage to sin and death (see Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:1-11).

In the gospel of Mark, however, Jesus is the servant who identifies with those who suffer.  So, in Mark 10:41-45, Jesus teaches his followers that while the world regards as great those who lord it over others, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).  The model for this life of service is Jesus himself: “For the Son of Man [this is the way Jesus refers to himself throughout the gospels] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  As the great Scottish Christian George MacDonald wrote, “the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be more like his.”

I am thinking about the cross today, not only because we are on the verge of Holy Week, but also because of a question raised by Jennifer, who asks what the Bible says about “those with different abilities. I don’t mean good singers and bad singers. I am speaking more of intellectual disabilities. It isn’t something covered much in the Bible, but it is very important to me.”  Jennifer’s question addresses not only the developmentally disabled, such as those with Down’s Syndrome, but also those who lose their intellectual abilities later in life.  In particular, as more and more of us are living into old age, the incidence of dementia, particularly due to Alzheimer’s, is on the rise.  Where is God in the lives of those who cannot understand the words of the Gospel?

To be sure, the Bible says a great deal about physical disabilities: blindness, deafness, paralysis, and a host of other ailments.  Usually, the point of Scripture is that God is a God of healing and wholeness (for example, see Isa 35:1-10; Matt 11:2-6).  But healing is not always guaranteed.  Consider Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10).  Interpreters vary broadly over what the nature of this ailment was.  Some suggest that Paul had malaria—an illness that, once you get it, keeps coming back, over and over again.  Others suggest, based on Gal 4:13-15 and 6:11, that Paul was going blind.  Whatever his trouble, it is clear that despite his prayers, Paul was not healed.  Still, he declares, “”I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).  Paul finds meaning in his own suffering by identifying with the suffering of Christ.

But what about those with intellectual disabilities?  As Jennifer notes, there is little, if anything, in the Bible to help us here.  Passages which may seem to refer to intellectual disability, such as 1 Thess 5:13, where the King James version reads “comfort the feeble-minded,” or Prov 1:22, which appeals to the “simple ones,” are talking about spiritual weakness or willful ignorance, not about mental illness or developmental impairments.  Still, if Jesus has come to identify with the least of us, to humble himself in service to all of us even to the point of taking on our suffering, weakness and death, then surely Jesus is among those who are mentally as well as physically or economically disabled.  Our relationship with God does not depend upon our right understanding—if it did, how could anyone be saved?  It depends upon God’s love and grace, and God’s decision to come and be with us in our weakness, whoever we are, and whatever our weakness may be.

Early in my ministry, I was blessed to know a woman named Freda, who was dying of a painful bone cancer.  God’s presence in her life was very real.  Toward the end, when I would visit her in the hospital, she would not ask me to talk about heaven, where she would be free from pain, or about the promised resurrection that would follow her death.  Instead, she said to me again and again, “Steve, tell me about the cross.”  The message of the cross to Freda was that she was not alone: that Christ was with her in her pain, and would not abandon her.  I believe that the cross speaks to all of us of God’s presence with us, whatever pain or fear or need we face.  In Christ, God assumes our disabilities into Godself, transforming the place of our deepest need into the place of God’s most abundant grace.

Mar
2013

The Bible and “The Bible”

A number of people have asked what I think about the television miniseries “The Bible,” now airing on the History Channel (see http://www.history.com/shows/the-bible for more information).  I have not seen this program (although several folk have told me about the “ninja angels” at Sodom,and my Scots Presbyterian students were foolishly pleased to learn that Noah was, evidently, Scottish!).  I think I probably should see it, both because this program shows how lots of people think about the Bible, and because it is probably going to shape how lots of people will think about the Bible.  Still I am, truth to tell, uncertain whether I want to see it or not.

Usually, I am not very excited by attempts to transfer the Bible to television or film.  My problem is not that such enterprises are not, or cannot be, done well.  It is rather that any film of any book is not the book.  No matter how faithful an adaptation it may be, the film is something new, something else.  For example: I am a great fan of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films, and also greatly enjoyed the first film of his new trilogy based on The Hobbit.

These films feature scenes and lines of dialogue straight from the books, as well as a design sensibility drawn not only from J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary descriptions, but from Tolkien’s own maps and watercolors of Middle Earth.

However, the films are not the books.  Scenes are missing or rearranged; characters are re-imagined, their interior lives left to be inferred from their actions and dialogue.  Most particularly, the feel of Tolkien’s prose and poetry, the rhythm of his language, is lost.  This is not a criticism: Jackson has, I believe, done as well with his adaptations as any lover of Tolkien’s books could wish.  But the films are films, and to be good films, they need to do what films do best, rather than trying to do what books do.

In her article “Context in Written Language: The Case of Imaginative Fiction,” Margaret Rader observes, “Only in writing can the inference-suggesting information be so carefully controlled and restricted even as inferring and imagining are given full rein” (in Spoken and Written Language, ed. by Deborah Tannen [Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982], 187).  That is, a text not only guides us into new worlds, but also gives us tremendous freedom to imagine those worlds.  Texts are specific—they cannot mean just anything—but their meaning remains open-ended, ambiguous.  Pictures, though, are explicit.  Pictures, especially moving pictures, show rather than tell—which can be an extremely powerful experience.  Still, pictures are more controlling and more restrictive than texts.  In a movie, Galadriel’s hair must be this color, not that.  Boromir will move like this, Rivendell will look like this.

As a result, some of the open-endedness and ambiguity of the text will be, must be, lost in the translation. For an immensely complex and multi-layered book like the Bible, this can result in a sense of over-simplification, of dumbing down. My friend David Odell, a chemistry professor at Glenville College in West Virginia (and a mean clawhammer banjo player!) wrote, “The show reminded me so much of a children’s book of Bible stories—not that children’s Bible stories are bad, but that’s not what I expect to see in a documentary.”

A television show adapting the stories of the Bible, then, is not the Bible.  There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember the difference!  But there is another problem with such an enterprise.  David also wrote, “I can’t help but find irony in how one minute Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments,

and a few minutes (or maybe the next episode) later, God is instructing them to kill their enemies.”

This, again, is not a fault of the series: the History Channel has only a limited amount of time, and is condensing the narratives of the Bible to fit into that time frame.  But in so doing, they are giving those narratives a different context: within the linear flow of images that makes up a television program, rather than within the pages of a text, where a reader can range backward or forward, slow down or speed up at will.

In Scripture, the conquest narrative in Joshua has multiple contexts.  One context places this narrative at the beginning of the story of Israel told in Joshua through Kings (called in Jewish tradition the Former Prophets).  In that setting, the violent conquest of the people of the land in Joshua foreshadows the violence Israel itself will suffer, ending in the loss of the land given by God as Jerusalem is destroyed and its leading citizens are taken into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24—25).

Joshua must also be read in another context: as the end of the narrative extending from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah, or Law, in Jewish tradition).  There, the occupation of the land is the fulfillment of an ancient promise (Gen 15), given to landless, homeless people (see Deut 26:5-10).  Even so, the land is regarded, not as Israel’s possession, but as God’s.  In Leviticus 25:23, the Lord declares, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” God allows Israel to live on God’s land.

A careful reader quickly discovers another, more subtle, context for this narrative.  While in the main plot line of the Former Prophets the story of Israel’s entry into the land is a story of total war and conquest, the writers have preserved other, alternate traditions: old memories that conflict with the main plot line.  So, while Joshua 10:40 reads, “So Joshua defeated the whole land. . . he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (see also 12:23), in Joshua 13:1, God says to Joshua, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”  The opening chapter of Judges describes large areas of the territory of Palestine that were not in Israel’s hands.  In fact, the tribes are described as hanging on by their fingernails in the hill country, surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies.  This explains, I believe, why the oldest songs in Scripture (such as Exod 15:1-18 and Jdg 5:1-31) describe God as a warrior: the people of Israel, living under constant threat, found great power and encouragement in the image of the God who fights for us.

This is a far fuzzier, more ambiguous picture of Israel’s past than a single, linear story line can convey—far too fuzzy for good television.  The ambiguity with which the whole biblical story regards the violence in Joshua does not translate well into images—but the screen loves a good battle scene (as is sadly evident in Peter Jackson’s movies, which are far more explicit in their depiction of violence and gore than Tolkien’s books).

Joshua has another biblical context that we must explore.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Former Prophets (Josh-Kgs) are immediately followed by the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (twelve short prophetic books sometimes called the Minor Prophets).  The Prophets as a whole, then, begin with Joshua and end with Malachi.  At the beginning of the Prophets, God says to Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (Josh 1:7).  At the end of the Prophets, God says to Malachi, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4 [3:22 in Hebrew]).  The Prophets begin and end with the Law!  Rather than being just another scene in a straight narrative line, then, the Torah given through Moses is the focus of all the Prophets.  The depiction in the Ten Commandments of a just community, bound together by the love of God and of neighbor, is far more “biblical,” if you will, than the exciting scenes of mayhem a visual reenactment of Joshua, or Genesis, or Exodus, will convey.  Context is key.

AFTERWORD:  The Bible Guy joins believers around the world in celebrating the election of Pope Francis.

By taking the name of the humble reformer Saint Francis of Assisi (the first to do so), this Pope from Buenos Aires—the first Pope from the global South, the first from the Americas, and indeed the first since Peter who is not European—has begun very well indeed.  May God’s blessing and guidance rest upon him.

 

Mar
2013

Why “The Bible Guy”?

Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a preacher.  My studies in college and seminary, and my experiences as an associate and a student pastor, only confirmed my sense of call.  When I graduated from seminary, my bishop appointed me to serve two country churches in West Virginia—and I was happy.  Even with its frequent frustrations, parish ministry was a joy.

My first inkling that God might be leading me in a hitherto unsuspected direction came a year or two into my ministry, when I was visiting one of my elderly shut-ins.  This day, her brother was with her.  He had heard about me from his sister, and wanted to meet me—in order, I soon learned, to confirm his suspicions.  Though he had never set foot in the churches I served or heard me preach, he knew that I was a heretic because 1) I was a United Methodist, 2) I wore a clerical collar, and (I strongly suspect), 3) because I had a beard!  Almost immediately, he began to quiz me.  “What does the Bible say about baptism?”  When I started to answer that the Bible says a lot of things about baptism, he interrupted me: “No.  Acts 2:38:  ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.’”  And so it went.  For every question, a memorized proof text was the right answer; my fumbling attempts to address other texts, to express a range of biblical answers, were brushed aside.  All the while, I kept thinking, “Why can’t I talk to this man?  We both care for his elderly sister.  We both love the Lord.  We both love the Bible.  Why can’t we communicate?”

After this encounter, my wife Wendy and I prayed long and hard about where God was leading us.  We realized that I needed to go back to school, to pursue deeper study into the Bible and how to communicate its message more effectively.  When my doctoral degree in Hebrew Bible was completed, a friend invited me to interview at a small, church-related college in South Carolina, where I discovered a new passion: I love to teach!  For the next seventeen years of my life, I found myself a college professor, teaching Bible and religion to undergraduates first in South Carolina, later in Virginia—something I had never thought about doing, but now found to be God’s new direction for my ministry.

While I was teaching in Virginia, a colleague one day emailed me a question about the Bible, prefacing it with “Since you are the Bible guy. . .”.   Immediately I thought, “That is exactly who I am.  I love the Bible: I love studying it, I love teaching it, and most of all, I love the God revealed in its pages.  I am a Bible guy.”  Now, eight years into a new career as a seminary professor, helping women and men prepare for the pursuit of God’s call on their lives, I am even more persuaded that this is my calling.  I am a Bible guy!

In this blog, I want to share the Bible I love with you, and invite you to join me as fellow Bible guys. As time goes on, I hope that we will engage in conversation across these pages.  Perhaps I can answer some of your questions; certainly, I will pose many of my own. John Wesley, founder of Methodist Christianity, referred to himself as homo unius libri: that is, “a man of one book.”  I pray we will find ways to speak across our differences, united by our love and respect for Scripture—that we might become, following Wesley’s example, a people of one Book.

 

Feb
2013

What Color Is Lent?

winterThis has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010).  Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway.  Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate.  Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving.  The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade.  But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

ground-tuell

Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept.  Lent as springtime?  Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (6th century) as “the Spring of souls.”  Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these forty days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration!  But the Lenten disciplines are not optional.  Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).  Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we.  But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless.  Lent is a green season—a time of growth.  Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are.  Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit.  It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!

By The Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.